The Future of Work, Plus or Minus E-mail

The Future of Work, Plus or Minus E-mail

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the social networking giant’s chief technology officer and vice president of engineering through 2008, when he left with enough equity to make him a billionaire many times over. Rosenstein was a product manager at Google who built a task-tracking system and a Web page creator for the search leader, then moved to Facebook in 2007-2008, where he helped create the Like button and the controversial Beacon advertising program.

Asana’s cloud-based task tracking system for teams took its inspiration from a similar Web application that Moskovitz built inside Facebook, after he realized how much of every product manager and engineer’s time was going into what he calls “work about work,” such as e-mail and meetings. As people spend more time issuing progress updates and searching for the latest updates from others, he warns, the work about work becomes the work itself, and nothing real gets done.

Smart organizations find a way out: they adopt or invent a system of record to replace all the e-mails, Post-it notes, and whiteboards. “Sufficiently large technology companies all just build this for themselves,” Moskovitz says. “Apple has a very famous system called Radar. I built the one that Facebook still uses today. Justin built the one for Google. We really think it is part of the secret sauce of why these organizations do well and grow so quickly: they have figured out the way groups should organize.”

Asana co-founders Dustin Moskovitz (left) and Justin Rosenstein (right)

Asana co-founders Dustin Moskovitz (left) and Justin Rosenstein (right)

The core of the Asana service is a personal task list that’s viewable inside a Web browser, similar to Gmail. Tasks can be grouped into projects; projects can be shared across a team of followers; and team leaders can assign tasks to individual project followers. Tasks can be sorted by due date or assignee, and followers can attach comments or documents to each task, with the latest changes reflected on each follower’s dashboard.

The whole idea is to keep the tasks and the associated conversations and materials side by side, to minimize task switching. “Often organizations have a system that is meant to be the record of what their company intends to do—maybe it’s Microsoft Project or a Gantt chart,” Moskovitz says. “But that is a secondary source of truth. All your real planning is happening on the communications tool. You typically have a guilt-trip process: ‘Go put this e-mail on the wiki.’ But those systems inevitably fall into disrepair, because there has always been some conversation since it was updated.” Moskovitz calls Asana “the first product that is really the marriage between the data repository and the communications layer.”

Hundreds of thousands of teams use Asana, including people inside practically every high-growth tech startup you’ve ever heard of— Airbnb, Birchbox, Dropbox, Foursquare, Pinterest, Stripe, and Uber, to name a few. According to Rosenstein, customers report to Asana that they see an average 85 percent reduction in the volume of internal e-mail.

“What they tell us is, ‘This is not a slight upgrade or a cool addition to our toolkit. This is a radical change to the way we work together,’” Rosenstein says. “A ton of activity that used to go into writing and reading e-mails, or sitting in weekly meetings—all of that was communication whose purpose was to answer really basic questions like what to do or what to let go of—all of those things are immediately answerable in Asana without having to go bug someone.”

There are some strictures to the Asana creed. For one thing, it works best when everyone in an organization is using it, even to track their home and personal tasks. Otherwise, users have to jump back and forth between different tools, which Moskovitz views as wasteful. “When we started out we knew we had a couple of necessities for having a successful product,” he says. “One was being low-friction enough that you are willing to use it as your personal task manager, so it becomes the primary source of truth.”

But even in an all-Asana company, unfortunately, the frictionlessness stops at the walls of the organization. The software lets insiders invite partners, customers, clients, and other outsiders to join temporary teams. But so far there’s no way to fully link task lists across two or more subscribing organizations.

That means most users still have to fall back on e-mail to stay in touch with outside partners, which Moskovitz and Rosenstein see as a major barrier to collaboration and productivity. “Right now the friction of doing a partnership or any kind of business development is so high, you are reluctant to do things unless you think there is a really high chance it will be valuable,” Rosenstein says. “Our aspiration is not just that you have this company here and there, but all companies using Asana, and as a result they can all communicate seamlessly. That will be a total game changer.”

III. Living in the Document

In many knowledge-based organizations, communication takes place mainly over e-mail, while the bulk of the work—the collaborative processing of ideas—occurs inside documents: Microsoft Word files, Web pages, spreadsheets, presentations, and the like. One of the big transitions underway in document-rich workplaces these days is the movement away from an older generation of on-premises enterprise content management systems from companies like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and EMC toward cheaper, more consumerized online file sharing and hosting services from startups like Box and Dropbox. The new kids on the block know that today’s knowledge workers want simple tools for moving files around, and that they want access to these tools on all of their devices, including their laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

“I would say between Dropbox and Evernote and Box and Skydrive and all of these services, we’re sort of all going after the same ultimate mission of instant access to all of your data at any time from anywhere on any device,” says Box’s Levie. “Some companies think about how you do it at a personal level. We think about how you do that for 10,000 people.”

In theory, a mobile- and desktop-friendly file sharing system would save workers from having to send documents around as attachments, thus allowing organizations to reduce their overall dependence on e-mail. But while Levie acknowledges that Box’s world is document-centric, he’s less of a purist than Moskovitz or Rosenstein at Asana. The way Levie sees it, a single worker might have different jobs in the course of a day. It’s important to choose the right tool for each job, and e-mail might still be the connective tissue between them.

Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie

Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie

“The way to think about it is, how is it that the software that you live your day out of manifests what you’re working on?” Levie says. “In Salesforce it’s a customer record. In Zendesk it’s a support ticket. In Zuora it’s a customer billing record. So it turns out that in different contexts of our business we have different atomic units of work.”

If the context is a team effort around a document, that’s when a tool like Box may enter the picture. Conceptually, it isn’t all that different from Asana. It’s a platform for communications, except that comments, updates, and assignments are organized around documents rather than tasks.

Box is obviously useful for storing and shuttling the documents themselves, but managing the interactions is where its real value lies, according to Sam Schillace, the company’s senior vice president of engineering. “Nobody writes a document just to have a document,” Schillace says. “You write it to have an interaction with somebody else. It’s ultimately some business outcome you are looking for. Over time, the artifact part breaks down, and we are stripping out everything except the interaction.”

Before he joined Box, Schillace created Writely, the Web-based word processor that became Google Docs. And Google Docs, which is now part of the broader Google Drive office suite, is another leading example of a document-centric collaboration tool, where comments and changes from various users are visible to other users within or alongside the document, in real time (or nearly so).

The more tightly such interactions remain bound to the central document, the less collaborators will need to … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • Christopher Noble

    Congratulations on a well-researched article on a compelling topic.